The demise of Hong Kong’s autonomy

On July 1st 1997, as the clocks struck midnight, Hong Kong was freed from its colonial masters. Tung Chee-Hwa, Hong Kong’s first chief executive, stated with pride: “We, the people of Hong Kong, will be masters of our own destiny.” Britain, who had colonised Hong Kong for 150 years, would pass the territory to Chinese hands until 2047. Retaining a high degree of autonomy, Hong Kong would become a bastion of freedom. An era of ‘one country, two systems’ had begun – or so it was promised.

At 11pm on 30th June 2020, but an hour before the anniversary of Hong Kong’s liberation, the city was chilled to its core. The authoritarian Chinese government, led by the Chinese Communist Party, had forced a draconian national security law upon the territory, making a mockery of ‘one country, two systems’. This also violated Hong Kong’s ‘Basic Law’ – its post-colonial constitution, which reserves the creation of national security laws to Hong Kong itself. Overnight, the city’s reputation as a bulwark of liberty was shattered.

This is not the first time the Chinese Communist Party has sought to undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy. The latest national security law is undoubtedly the most significant subversion of the Sino-British Joint Declaration since its agreement in 1997, if not one of the greatest assaults on a liberal society since the Second World War. Shrouded in secrecy, the bill was crafted behind closed doors in Beijing; not even Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s current Chief Executive, was involved in its creation. 

Despite its length, the law itself is a text of terrifying ambiguity. Orwellian in its language, the law prohibits sedition, subversion, terrorism, and colluding with foreign powers, but does little to define the parameters in which these will be applied. Ultimately, it’s the party that decides.

the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s decolonisation, on July 1st, was marked by thousands of protesters lining the streets to revolt against a law imposed by faraway masters.

Echoing last year’s extradition bill, the new law states that “serious” or “complex” crimes shall result in extradition to the mainland for trial. This bill was eventually retracted after its proposition was vehemently opposed by protesters across Hong Kong.  The tactics used in these protests – including sabotaging transport systems and vandalising government buildings –  are now labelled as terrorist offenses and subversion, each carrying a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.  If deemed serious enough, officials suggest those convicted by mainland courts could even be executed.

That said, most national security cases will be handled by local courts. But don’t be fooled. The judges will doubtless be handpicked by the government. They may disregard juries and try citizens in secret. They will not serve justice.

It is grimly ironic then that the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s decolonisation, on July 1st, was marked by thousands of protesters lining the streets to revolt against a law imposed by faraway masters, bent on undermining the territory’s autonomy. On that day, ten protesters were arrested under the new measures. One man was detained after being found in possession of an independence flag, while a fifteen-year-old girl was arrested for carrying a ‘subversive’ sign. Readers would be forgiven for mistaking such occurrences to something from Orwell’s dystopian thriller ‘1984’.

The CCP is intent on silencing opposition in Hong Kong, regardless of the global outrage it causes.

The law has extended its suffocating grasp to the media too. On July 29th, four students were arrested for ‘inciting secession’ on social media, a day later twelve pro-democracy candidates were barred from the September elections. Then, on August 10th, two-hundred police officers stormed the offices of Apple Daily (media tycoon Jimmy Lai’s tabloid newspaper), a display that symbolised the destruction of autonomy in Hong Kong. These arrests emphasise that the CCP is intent on silencing opposition in Hong Kong, regardless of the global outrage it causes.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab spoke of Britain’s “historical responsibilities” to Hong Kong while justifying the decision to offer three million Hong Kongers the chance to live and work in Britain for five years. The United States has imposed sanctions on eleven top Chinese and Hong Kong officials, including Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

Perhaps we should not be surprised by Beijing’s actions. After all, the massacre at Tiananmen Square signified that the party, regardless of the global outcry and the sanctions it invited, would, by any means necessary, silence dissenters.

Although the future is uncertain for Hong Kong, one thing is for sure. The pandemic may have halted the protests, but Beijing’s insatiable desire to accelerate the demise of Hong Kong’s autonomy has continued. 

By Michael Gaughan

Image: by Studio Incendo via Flickr

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